Will Healy has a history with Appalachian State.
Healy, the Charlotte 49ers’ first-year football coach, was a backup quarterback at Richmond when his Spiders faced the Mountaineers in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) playoffs in 2007 and ’08.
Appalachian State, on its way to a third consecutive FCS title in ’07, beat Richmond, 55-35, in the semifinals that season. The Spiders flipped the script in 2008, beating the Mountaineers, 33-13, in the second round of the playoffs on the way to their own national championship.
After graduating from Richmond, Healy spent seven seasons as an assistant at Chattanooga, where the Mocs went 1-4 against Appalachian before the Mountaineers left the Southern Conference for the Sun Belt in 2014.
But Healy has another shot at them on Saturday, when his 49ers (1-0) get the chance to measure themselves against the Mountaineers (1-0) at 3:30 p.m. in Boone’s Kidd Brewer Stadium.
“I don’t know what else we could ask for, playing a meaningful game at App State, at least it’s meaningful for us,” Healy said. “We want what App has. And they don’t want us to have it.”
Healy has more than a casual appreciation of the culture in Boone that has allowed Appalachian to continue to excel on the FBS level, where it has won three straight Sun Belt titles and four consecutive bowl games.
It was on the same field in 2008 — before that second-round FCS matchup — that Healy overhead a conversation between then-Richmond coach Mike London and Jerry Moore, the Mountaineers’ former coach.
Appalachian State, going for a fourth consecutive title, had beaten Michigan in 2007 in one of college football’s biggest upsets, launching the Mountaineers into the sport’s national consciousness.
A year later, London looked up and marveled at a newly constructed press box sitting high above the stadium’s home stands.
“I guess this is what you get when you win three straight national titles,” Healy recalled London saying to Moore.
“No,” Moore replied. “This is what you get when you beat Michigan.”
It’s a scene that has stuck with Healy, who is hoping to invigorate a 49ers program that is just 7 years old and trying to get up to speed — on the field and off — with fellow Group of 5 teams, such as Appalachian State.
Healy, although a seldom-used substitute when Richmond beat the Mountaineers that year, had shown so much leadership during his career that he was one of the first Spiders players to hold the championship trophy aloft a few weeks later.
But he said he learned a valuable lesson from the victory. The Spiders jumped out to a 23-7 lead in the third quarter, but it didn’t feel safe, not with Appalachian State’s All-American quarterback Armanti Edwards at the helm. The Mountaineers came back with a touchdown, cutting the lead to 23-13 after a two-point conversion failed.
“When you play a team that has won as much as they have and won three straight national titles, you can’t let them feel like they’ve snuck back in the game,” Healy said. “And they’ve got Armanti on their side of the ball.”
The Spiders came right back with another touchdown. With Edwards having a terrible game — he threw five interceptions in the second half — Richmond was able to put the game out of reach.
“We needed to answer and we did,” Healy said. “That’s what kind of took the wind out of their sails. When you play great football teams that are used to winning, they believe that (will happen) whatever the situation. So you’ve got to make sure you don’t give them opportunities late in the game. They feel like they can come back on you, so you’ve got to take the life out of them early.”
It’s a lesson Healy hopes his 49ers learned in their 49-28 season-opening victory last week against Gardner-Webb, when Charlotte was never able to fully put the Bulldogs away until late. The 49ers lost to Appalachian State, 45-9, last season.
Healy said there weren’t many Richmond fans at the game in Boone in 2008. But there were thousands of Appalachian State fans who had already purchased tickets to that season’s national championship game in Chattanooga (Healy’s hometown). Some of them gave their tickets to the Richmond fans as they walked out of the stadium.
“That’s the expectation of their fan base, and it’s a great expectation to have,” Healy said. “They expected to be in the national championship game and to win the national championship. Just like they expect to beat Charlotte or North Carolina (on Sept. 21), or whomever they play against now.”